I recently attended the launch of the Investing in City Regions report at Manchester Town Hall which made the case for long term investment plans for transport in and between the Uk’s cities.
It’s a compelling piece of work and backs up a lot of what members have told us about the need for a shift in mindset when it comes to looking at getting the best return from transport investment. To prove conclusively that something which doesn’t exist yet will yield X amount of investment is always a tough act to pull off. Sometimes the best evidence is what is right in front of our noses.
During the ensuing discussion the point was made several times about the need to act quickly to make up for years of neglect and the potential impact this would have. In a way it’s having to go backwards to go forwards or, perhaps more accurately, just to catch up.
Anyone that regularly watches the Michael Portillo series Great British Railway Journeys will know that the inspiration behind it was a series of guides written in the 19th century by George Bradshaw. If you’ve never seen the programme it’s a great piece of armchair travelling as Portillo follows various rail routes across the UK and Europe and follows up on the description of places and the journey made by Bradshaw over 100 years ago.
I wonder though if anyone attempted a similar feat these days especially at a weekend how long they would spend on rail replacement buses whilst the significant and necessary overhaul of huge sections of track, signals and stations takes place. I’m not so sure that the BBC would have commissioned Great British Rail Replacement Bus Journeys as eagerly.
It’s also the same on the roads. Overnight there seems to have been a surge in public works on a number of major roads in and around Manchester. With much of the city centre under the shovel ahead of the second city crossing for Metrolink and preparatory work for the Ordsall Chord; huge swathes of the M60 and M62 being upgraded to smart motorway status and a host of other works in progress.
Should we complain though?
I’m not so sure. For years the level of grumbling about shoddy railways, roads and poor connectivity has been deafening. Unfortunately due to the decades of under-investment we have managed to get ourselves in such a position that any attempt to make good the shortfall can only result in huge disruption.
So, unfortunately, there are a few years of this yet to come as the job is still not finished and in some cases it hasn’t even started. What is clear though is that there must be priority work identified - those schemes that will have most benefit for the economy and these must be delivered quicker.
I think everyone agrees that better transport connectivity and integration works and brings with it huge economic and social benefits. What isn’t so agreeable is the hit we are now taking with the current levels of disruption. With extra journey times, disruption to services and increasing levels of frustration we really are paying the price of progress. We must and can not afford ever to get left so far behind again.
Over the last few weeks there have been a number of significant announcements made that, on the face of it, answers a number of key issues raised in our Campaign for Business.
Our members called for the government to continue support for HS2 and look at integration with new East-West transport links in the North of England (HS3). Check – the Higgins report of 27th October sorted this.
Our members called for greater devolved powers from Whitehall – the favoured model being an elected mayor over an enhanced Combined Authority. Check – the announcement on 3rd November was a real game changer and in reality the proposal looks a little like a hybrid of the two.
Our members wanted more road investment – often the poor relation of infrastructure investment. Check - the announcement this week of £15bn in the Autumn Statement is definitely a step in the right direction though like all similar “coming soon” trailers we await further details.
With recent concerns being raised about the robustness of UK power supplies and the implied threat of outages this Winter this issue has risen in prominence in politicians minds. Members have again been vocal in expressing their concerns over the parlous state of the UK’s energy infrastructure and have made calls for longer term planning to be put in place. Again this chimes with recent thinking and announcements.
So the big ticket stuff is certainly being looked at and responded to. In fact at this rate we should have the entire Campaign sorted by Christmas.
Let’s just take the announcement around the elected mayor. At first glance this is not only a big deal for Greater Manchester but is a huge step in the right direction in answering a number of our campaign calls. Just stop and think for a minute though about what hasn’t been said in connection with the announcement. What happens with the interim mayor – ie the person who will be holding the reins until 2017 when the first mayoral election takes place? What powers will they have and how can we make sure businesses have their say on the issues that affect them? Whilst the current proposal is definitely a product of this government (with a willing local audience) would a change in government have an impact on these proposals? We know that local taxation is a big issue with members, and the Chancellor has categorically denied that the mayor would be able to control business rates – but is this missing a trick? The list and debate goes on.
What is clear is that the headlines sound and indeed look good and promise much but the work has to go on to make sure that what we end up with at the end of the day is what we actually want. The job is far from over and we mustn't fall into the trap of taking our foot off the gas or letting those in power making the announcements think it's job done. It isn't and wont be for some time to come.
So, now we know.
After months of speculation following the Chancellor's Northern Powerhouse speech in June when, after outlining major improvements that the north needs, he dropped the Mayor "bombshell" right at the end and which went largely unnoticed as everyone focussed on his proposals for HS3. I remember sitting there at the time thinking "that's interesting" and wondering what this would end up looking like in Greater Manchester and when the question of an elected mayor for Greater Manchester would crop up again. It seems I didn't have long to wait.
Anyone that has been closely following this, and we certainly have at the Chamber, will know there have been all manner of discussions, debates and models put forward as to what this could look like . It's safe to say the one put forward in the deal made today certainly wasn't one of them. And whilst many people "Think Boris" when city mayors are on the agenda this is definitely not a carbon copy of the London model. Once again Manchester has developed its own model for taking things forward. We have to make sure though that it works for everyone and that includes business who will have a key role to play in this starting from now.
For too long many businesses have been frustrated with decisions that impacted on them either being made remotely in Whitehall or locally, but with little if any input that reflected their views. Through work that the Chamber has pioneered with elements of the local skills budget, we have shown that by having the ability to respond to local conditions quickly and with minimal fuss real progress can be made.
Following the Scottish referendum result and the debate started in its aftermath businesses have been very engaged with looking at what future form of local governance would work best in Greater Manchester. This is an issue that sits at the heart of the Chamber’s Campaign for Business which states the major issues that businesses want to see addressed before the next election. The initial announcement today and outline of how the Manchester mayoral model would work seems to have gone some way in addressing this.
We obviously need to see the finer details to make sure there is a recognised role for business to play in this as well as look at how more of the allocated local budget, including a reformed model for business rates, could be transferred to local control, but it is obvious from the pace and scope of the announcement that this is not only a major change in policy and local governance, but also a major opportunity for Greater Manchester . We have to make sure that business responds and reacts to take advantage of this. We will undoubtedly return to this in the not too distant future.